Virgil Boutellis-Taft Puts Out One of the Most Darkly Beguiling Classical Albums of Recent Years
It’s been a lot of fun mining the dark side of the classical canon this month…and the fun isn’t over yet! One of the most diversely entertaining, dark-themed classical records of recent years is violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft‘s new album Incantation with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, streaming at Spotify. His approach is disarmingly direct and typically understated: overall, this is about mystery far more than the macabre.
He and the ensemble open with an aptly lush, starkly dynamic, moody take of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. Max Bruch was not Jewish, but he liked to plunder Jewish melodies – in this case, the prayer for the dead – rather than reaching for a faux-Romany sound as so many of his contemporaries did when they needed an extra jolt of minor-key intensity.
Tomaso Antonio Vitali’s Chaconne in G minor is one of the great classical mystery stories. We don’t know when it was written, but it was obviously radical for the baroque era. We know next to nothing about the composer and those who first resurrected it. Some investigators have suggested that the piece was deliberately misattributed in order to deflect possible criticism of its strikingly forward-looking chromatics. Boutellis-Taft holds onto the piece’s wicked ornamentation with a vise-grip legato as the orchestra looms and pulses menacingly behind him.
Saint-Saëns’ iconic Danse Macabre has been featured on this page innumerable times. This version of the witchy tarantella is distinguished by Boutellis-Taft’s gleeful vibrato, the forceful presence of the flutes, and an unusually persistent, skittish tension – which makes obvious sense in context. And the reaper doesn’t tiptoe out here – he leaves with a sinister flourish. He’ll be back!
Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade Mélancolique is exactly that, muted but purposeful. As with the Bruch work here, it’s a showcase for Boutellis-Taft’s resonant low midrange expressiveness, but also vigorously colorful attack in the upper registers. He makes a memorable return to Jewish themes with Ernest Bloch’s Nigun, from the Baal Shem suite, lit up by quicksilver ornamentation over an ominously Asian-tinged pentatonic theme. It’s a welcome addition to the classical heavy metal canon – and that’s meant as a compliment.
Ernest Chausson’s Poème pour Violon et Orchestre, op. 25, the longest piece on the program here, launches from an uneasily dreamy woodwind-driven tableau that eventually falls away on the wings of Boutellis-Taft’s wary solo. This is the most lavishly orchestrated yet most subtle performance here, darkly celestial rather than stygian.
Boutellis-Taft closes the album with Yumeji’s Theme, by Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi, a brief, melancholy, marionettishly waltzing recent work from the soundtrack to the film In the Mood for Love.